This Valentine's Day marks the 70th anniversary of a love affair between the United States and Saudi Arabia that began with a bizarre meeting between President Franklin Roosevelt and the first king of modern Saudi Arabia, Abdulaziz ibn Saud, whose son and sixth successor, King Salman, President Barack Obama went to embrace last month.
The meeting Feb. 14, 1945, took place aboard a U.S. Navy cruiser in the Great Bitter Lake in the Suez Canal zone where Roosevelt had stopped on his way home from the Yalta conference with Josef Stalin of the Soviet Union and Prime Minister Winston Churchill of Great Britain.
The Saudi king was transported to the rendezvous aboard a U.S. Navy destroyer with an extraordinary entourage staying on deck on carpets and beneath Bedouin tents along with sheep to be slaughtered for meals and tanks of fresh water brought from Mecca.
The dynamics that attracted the two were the same then as they are today. The Saudi monarch wanted money; the U.S. President wanted American companies to control the Arab country's vast oil resources.
The romance even included a vow quickly broken.
Arranged in the utmost secrecy, Ibn Saud, who had never before left his kingdom, first appeared at the dockside in Jiddah with an entourage of 200, including some women from his harem, according to published descriptions of the voyage by Col. W. A. Eddy, the U. S. minister to Jidda, and Capt. John S. Keating, commander of the destroyer squadron that included the Murphy.
Both Americans were appalled by the prospect of throwing together the king's harem and the all-male crew of the Murphy. Equally appalling, the king wanted to transport with him enough live sheep to guarantee that Islamic dietary laws restricting consumption to freshly slaughtered livestock would be followed.
The human entourage was ultimately reduced to 48 people with no women, but including coffee servers, cooks and six huge Nubians with swords. The animal cargo was reduced from 100 to seven. "As the Murphy steamed out of Jidda harbor, to the amazement of the sailors, one of the sheep was already being skinned on the fantail of the destroyer," Eddy recalled.
In the two-day voyage, the king and his entourage stayed and slept under tents and over carpets that had been laid down on the deck of the Murphy.
In an exchange of gifts, the king gave Roosevelt a gold-embroidered Arab robe and a jewel-encrusted sword and dagger.
Learning that the king was virtually immobilized by various infirmities, Roosevelt gave him one of his spare wheelchairs. He also gave him a DC-3 airplane equipped with a throne that swiveled so he could face Mecca at any time without standing.
But Roosevelt could not move Ibn Saud on the issue of Jewish immigration to Palestine. Ibn Saud repeatedly rejected Roosevelt's assertions that the Jews of Europe deserved a safe haven in Palestine after the horrors of the Holocaust.
"What injury have the Arabs done to the Jews of Europe? … Let the Germans pay," Ibn Saud told Roosevelt, according to Eddy's account of the meeting. Roosevelt did not agree with this formulation, but he did promise that with regard to the future of Palestine, which was then under British mandate, his government would not act in a way that would offend Arab sensitivities.
On April 5, 1945, Roosevelt sent a letter to Ibn Saud confirming the promise he had made aboard the Quincy, that regarding the future of Palestine he "would take no action, in my capacity as Chief of the Executive Branch of this Government, which might prove hostile to the Arab people."
Seven days after that letter was sent, Roosevelt was dead. Harry S. Truman became president and Roosevelt's promise was set aside in favor of a policy that exists to this day, as Truman explained to his critics on the issue, "I'm sorry, gentlemen, but I have to answer to hundreds of thousands of people who are anxious for the success of Zionism. I do not have hundreds of thousands of Arabs among my constituents."
G. Jefferson Price III is a former Middle East correspondent and foreign editor of The Baltimore Sun. His email is email@example.com.